I’m new to politics. My family ingrained a very clear message in my mind from when I was young – they said focus on your education, work hard, take care of your family and stay far away from politics. It made sense at the time, so I didn’t question it and did exactly what I was told. Today, I am fortunate to have a few friends and peers that are involved in politics. They get to know their representatives, keep a dialogue with them throughout the year and provide their time and expertise to them. In return, their representative knows exactly where they stand on the issues that mean the most to them.
We are living at a unique time in history. Many of us are realizing that we have taken so much for granted. Now, not getting politically involved doesn’t seem to be an option we can live with. It’s not about being democrat or republican anymore. It’s about making sure our country and world is heading towards the right direction and taking care of all of its citizens. It’s about making sure we take care of the only planet we have, that everyone in our country has access to healthcare and that we don’t have to worry about guns showing up at our child’s school.
I was so inspired by the young students in this country making their voices heard that I decided that I needed to find something in my wheelhouse to help. I reached out to my friends to make a few introductions and see if there were candidates who wanted to share their message directly to the Persian American community. The first one I heard back from was Harley Rouda. He is running for congress for the 48th district in California. I met him and his team at his office for the interview and we started the conversation with how the Persian American community has positively impacted the United States and the world from Academia and Business to the Arts and Sports. We talked about the innovators leading some of the biggest companies in the United States like Siemens, Dropbox, Intuit, YouTube, Uber, Masimo, Twitter, Bebe, Oracle, Qualcomm and e-Bay. The rest of our conversation below.
Irandokht: What has your experience been with the Persian American Community? What are some of the challenges they have brought to your attention?
Harley: I’ve met with many members of the Persian American community. They have helped me to better understand their issues, their challenges, their history and their culture. The Muslim ban is a sore point for the Persian American community. It has certainly been an impetus in blocking family reunifications with travel restrictions for family trying to visit them in the U.S. Another big issue they have shared with me is the sense that our government right now is partisan, and politicians are putting party first and country second. We certainly see that with our current representative Dana Rohrabacher.
Harley Rouda’s message to the Persian American community
Irandokht: What would you say to Persian Americans that have historically shied away from politics and even voting?
Harley: This is a crucial opportunity for the Persian American community. We want all Americans to be involved in the political process. It’s so important for the direction of our country and how our country supports all of our communities. If you are 18 years or older, it is to your advantage to register to vote and make your vote count. Dive in and understand the candidates for each election. Support candidates and the issues you believe in. There is an old adage: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” That adage is indicative of how important it is to be a part of the political process because if you are not involved, it’s hard to complain about the outcomes.
This is a crucial opportunity for the Persian American community. We want all Americans to be involved in the political process. It’s so important for the direction of our country and how our country supports all of our communities.
My understanding is that the largest concentration of Persians outside of Iran are in LA, Orange County and California. Marshalling this community to get involved in the political process is good for the Persian American community and good for America. When the community is engaged with their representatives, they can better understand those issues and fight for them in Washington DC and on the world stage.
Irandokht: I really like that… “if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” So true! Can you elaborate on this or give us an example of another community that has made a concerted effort to be at the table?
Harley: Let me provide an example using the Vietnamese community in my district. They have historical traditions, a strong sense of family and community. They have shared with me that there was a time early on that they shied away from engaging in the political process, but they made a choice as a community and today, they have become very engaged in the political process as individuals and with their businesses. We see more and more politicians coming from this community and more and more politicians working with the Vietnamese community to understand their issues and challenges and help address them.
Irandokht: What made you decide to run for congress?
Harley: For me, the 2016 election was frustrating. The vote came down to a vote on two personalities, but it should have been about the issues because that’s what our founders wanted. I believe everyone should get engaged in the political process. Please…regardless of where you are on the political spectrum…get educated on the issues, get educated on the candidates and get involved in politics because it is so important for your country and your beliefs. And talk to each other. Don’t simply sit in an echo chamber hearing only your point of view regurgitated back to you repeatedly. Try and understand other points of view and try to find the common ground.
Irandokht: I love that – we all get so connected to our own beliefs and many times surround ourselves with like-minded friends with just one point of view. Could you give us specifics on how you incorporated this in your life before running for office?
Harley: I’ll share with you one thing that my wife and I have done for close to 20 years now. Every election, we’ve gotten together with a group of friends with various political ideologies – republicans, independents, libertarians and democrats. We discuss the issues and the candidates. In several cases, I changed my mind on an issue. One example is the death penalty. I had a friend who was a Pulitzer winning writer that had just finished a book that included data on the people that were put to death and later found through DNA evidence to be not guilty. He also provided insight on how much more the death penalty costs this country. This evidence along with my own research on the topic made it crystal clear for me that I stand against the death penalty.
Irandokht: It seems there is no stop to the horrible shootings happening across this country. Where do you stand on increasing gun regulations?
Harley: We need to recognize that since 1968 there has been more gun deaths in the United States through murder and suicide than all the deaths in the history of the United States with men and women serving our country in war from the revolutionary war to the war of 1812, civil war, two world wars, Korean war, Iraq war and Afghan war and every skirmish in between. We have an epidemic. The good news is that we have majority support for basic legislation to address gun violence from background checks to waiting periods to limitations in assault rifles, closing the boyfriend loophole and making sure people in the no-fly list can’t purchase guns. These are all common-sense ideas that have majority support across the U.S. but until we have politicians who are willing to do what the American people want, it’s going to be difficult to get this legislation passed. Case in point: Representative Dana Rohrabacher has taken tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars from the gun lobby. His idea – and I’m not making this up – is to train and arm high school students with guns to protect our schools. It is an asinine idea and it just shows he is unfit.
Irandokht: I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What do you think about building walls to make America safer?
Harley: We need comprehensive immigration reform and I support senate bill 744 that was passed in 2014 in the U.S. Senate by a two to one majority including Republicans senators from the southern border states. It went to the house where speaker of the house was told by the Tea Party that if he let it out to the floor for it to be voted on, that they would do everything they could to take away his speakership, so he never let it be voted on. This bill provided $46 billion dedicated to border and port security. Half of the undocumented people come through our airports and ports. The idea is to have secure borders not walls. The bill also provided a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, a pathway to citizenship for those in the country for 10+ years who had no felony convictions, as long as they pay back taxes and any fines. And it included a reorganization of the visa program to provide opportunities for those who wanted to create businesses and jobs in the U.S. to be able to do that without being sent back. I would like to see this bill back on the table.
Irandokht: What do you think about Universal Healthcare?
Harley: There are 200 countries in the world and 40 of them are industrialized developed countries. Of these 40, 39 have universal healthcare and only one doesn’t – the United States. Those 39 countries follow one of three different plans and unfortunately the U.S. follows all 3 of them and as such we spend 18.5% of our GDP on healthcare while these other industrialized countries spend half of that. It would suggest that the U.S. would have the healthiest people in the world but if you look at the healthcare matrix, you will see that we don’t– we tend to be in the lower quartile against other countries. I believe we need to be careful not creating unintended consequences with changes to the healthcare system so what I suggest are 3 things:
- Open Medicare – also called the Public Option where individuals, families and businesses can buy into Medicare. They can also buy from private insurance market.
- Take the shackles off the ability for Medicare to negotiate drug prices – that would have an enormous positive impact on our seniors as well as everyone within the country.
- Align incentives to increase patient safety in our hospitals and continue to weed out all fraud in the healthcare business.
We need to realize that we are in fact providing universal healthcare in the least effective way at the emergency room instead of through preventive care and with these changes, we can quickly provide greater access, better coverage and lower prices.
We have 30 million Americans that do not have healthcare insurance. We can’t ignore the fact that the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in our country is due to the inability to pay their healthcare bill. And this is also the leading cause of homelessness. This is not good for America and it’s not good for the taxpayers.
Irandokht: Just to make sure I am connecting the dots – you are for both Universal Healthcare and protecting people with pre-existing conditions?
Harley: Correct – absolutely. Just to put it in to perspective – Representative Dana Rohrabacher has voted 17 times to deny protections for people with pre-existing conditions. His healthcare has been free and paid for by taxpayers for the 30 years he has been a representative and pre-existing conditions have always been covered so it appears he can’t appreciate what every day Americans have to deal with.
Irandokht: Absolutely. I want to now circle back to the Muslim ban. Many Persian Americans are not only frustrated because it makes it difficult for their family to visit – they don’t understand why their country of origin was chosen but not the countries of those that participated in terrorism on American soil. When someone asks you why we are banning countries and not just specific people that have done bad things, how do you respond?
Harley: I agree – these are absolutely spot on points. The foreign terrorists that were involved were not included in the Muslim ban. It was clearly a ban that was done to punish countries that the President doesn’t agree with (politics) and to pit Americans against Americans.
Irandokht: There are a lot of Democrats that are frustrated at the Democratic party and believe they have been too weak to take the actions needed to protect this country and its people from harm. How do you respond to that?
Harley: I think the Democrats have done what they could in standing up in the last 2 years. When you look at the fact that the republicans control the House of Representative, Senate and the Whitehouse and have failed to get through some of the legislation they have proposed, it’s proof that elected Democrats, activists, volunteers and everyday Americans voicing their opinion have helped prevent even worse things from happening. Unfortunately, these are only preventable measures. If you want to move forward in a positive way, then there is only one way to make that happen – vote! If you want to change the direction of our country, then you need to get out and vote. And help others vote. Volunteer your time or give money to help those people get elected for the change you want to see. It’s really as simple as that. To put it into perspective. Bloomberg just reported that this is the number one congressional race in the country with outside money coming in. This money is from Republican Super PACs with extremist agenda and if you want to stop them from being successful then we all need to step up and give our time, our talent and most importantly our treasures.
I hope this article inspires you to connect with the other Persian Americans that you know (no matter the party) and talk about how you can get involved and make a difference this November. There is so much you can do – volunteer, make calls, write articles and fundraise if you are able to. In doing some research for this article, I realized that even doing a fundraiser or providing financial support was more affordable than I thought. In campaigns, an individual is legally allowed to contribute up to $2,700 to as many candidates as they wish. If you are hosting a fundraiser, you are legally allowed to spend up to $1,000 per adult living in the house on the event. For many, that would be $2,000 max on any event. You then invite a few friends and ask for $250-$2700 donation to attend the dinner. This allows you to raise money for your candidate and enables you and your friends to get some one on one conversation with the representative on what’s important to you.
To learn more and/or donate to Harley Rouda’s campaign, please visit Harley For Congress
Cover photo. Harley’s family from front to back: Dylan, Harley, Kaira, Avery, back row: Shea and Trace